As a Tolkien fan and a Scandinavianist, I’ve had a bit of a mixed reaction to the recent news. Tolkien considered for a Nobel Prize back in 1961! Wow, how exciting! A Swedish literary prize for an author and academic who worked in Medieval Scandinavian (OK, and English) literature (there’s hope for me yet…) That said, the dismissal (he didn’t actually get the prize, after all) is pretty harsh. Anders Österling, the secretary of the Swedish Academy at the time, insisted that the writing was not in any way of the highest class. More on that below.
The news has come up as the relevant documents have just become unclassified. Others who missed out in 1961: Graham Greene, Karen Blixen (another Scandinavian!), Robert Frost, E.M. Forester, John Steinbeck (who got it the next year), and Giula Scappino Murena. The winner was Yugoslavian author Ivo Andrić.
So Tolkien lost because of bad prose? I’ve heard a variety of opinions about Tolkien’s prosefrom writers I know, though I don’t think I’ve had anyone totally pan him. I remember at least one who was frustrated with all the long winded descriptions throughout the book, while others consider Tolkien a master of his art. Ursula LeGuin has written at least one essay on Tolkien’s skill in rhythmic patterning (a copy of the essay is in The Wave in the Mind, which I also recommend for the essay on oral communication), and I’ve always enjoyed his prose myself (but I suppose he stands out all the more in contrast to the best selling Tolkien-hacks that have followed him– just the memory of some of the prose I’ve read makes me shudder…) But in the spirit of Reception theory, let’s keep in mind that the appeal of an author’s prose can vary pretty widely from person to person, as well as between discourse communities. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale was recommended to me because of the “beautiful prose”, but I’ve run across at least one very intelligent and well-read reviewer who just could not stand Helprin’s overwrought and flowery writing. I liked it, myself. Hemingway is also good, but I don’t want everything I read to be so spare. I’ve had a pretty visceral experience with shifting prose-expectations myself, which I believe I have already mentioned a few times regarding Kathy Tyer’s book Shivering World. I first read this back in the late 90s or early 2000s and really enjoyed it. So did others apparently–it was nominated for a Nebula Award in the early 90s. In the mid 2000s it was rewritten and published in the Christian market. Curious, I picked it up and started rereading it. Within the first paragraph I was struck with… well, a really uncomfortable feeling. Maybe a bit of Freud’s “uncanny“. I took the original version and compared the two side by side, and sure enough, the phrasing had been changed around. I can’t remember how drastically this was done (and I’ve misplaced my original version), but the first version felt like science fiction, and the other didn’t. All that to say, I think “genre fiction” has its own rules for the authors of the science fiction and fantasy ghetto to deal with (whether they break them or follow them). Tolkien predates this “ghetto” to a degree (he is arguably one of the creators, though it certainly comes out of Golden Age sci-fi as well), but I wonder if there was a similar problem of expectations involved.
That said, I will admit that I find much of Tolkien’s poetry throughout the LOTR to be not particularly satisfying. I have read poems by him which I have liked very much, but as far as LOTR goes, I can see how a high caliber poet like Österling would be especially put off by Tolkien’s own versifying. Österling himself is described as “the last of the previous century’s [=1800s] great poets” in Göran Hägg‘s Den svenska litteraturhistorien (=”The History of Swedish Literature”), although he only debuted in 1904 (at 20 years old, however–better than I did). I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on his work yet, but from what I understand much of Österling’s own poetry is relatively romantic in nature, dwelling on bits of folklore (bäckahästen, the water sprite), rural and wild landscapes, and the remnants of ancient times (Hägg’s book includes a beautiful final stanza from a poem on Ales stenar, though it is perhaps more beautiful to me as I remember being there myself, on the headlands in southern Skåne). One might expect two such romantics to get along fine, but I can imagine a more “traditional” literary type like Österling finding Tolkien’s headlong (and apparently unironic) dive into a world of gods and heroes to be… well, a little silly. No matter. I still like it. And I think I could probably enjoy Österling’s work too.
This reminds me of another Swedish poet, this one much more recently involved with the Nobel Prize: Tomas Tranströmer. When I heard the news I picked up my collected poems and started reading through them with an eye toward blogging about this–alas, I forgot, and you are only getting this belated notice tacked on to a post about Tolkien. Typical. In any case, there are a few of Tranströmer’s poems translated into English an available online. Poets.org has a couple After a Death even has a bit of the fantastic to it, with the samurai in his armor of black dragon scales. While it seems to have been out of print for about a decade, Samizdat has a few translations in their 3rd issue. This Latin American literary magazine also offers a few selections. Here is a portion from Further In from that site:
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
words in invisible ink
when the paper is held to the fire!
Makes me want to write. Well, write something more than a blog (I did sketch out a new poem today–we’ll see if it ever becomes anything).
To close this discussion off, let’s note that Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize by his friend C.S. Lewis. Inklings freaks rejoice. Lewis and Tolkien were united in their distaste for modern literature, so Österling’s dismissal is no more surprising than Lewis’ endorsement, but I find it interesting that Tolkien was considered in 1961–long after Tolkien and Lewis had “fallen out”, or perhaps we should say “drifted apart”, as I don’t believe there was ever a really fight or anything like that. I think it’s touching that Lewis did this. Sure, friends nominating friends maybe diminishes some of the “Yeah, Tolkien almost got a Nobel!” effect, but neither of them were really playing by the same rules as the literary status quo at the time. And while I do value literary excellence, I value friendship in spite of differences all the more. Um, not cronyism though. But hey, if you’d like to nominate me for the Nobel Prize, go ahead.
Haha, I’m such a sap. Ah well.